Address by Brian Lenihan, T.D. Minister for Children at the conference on “What Works Best With Troubled Children” at the Hodson Bay Hotel, Athlone


I am delighted to be here today to address this conference on “What Works Best With Troubled Children”.

This conference, which my Department has organised in partnership with the Health Boards and the Social Services Inspectorate (SSI), follows on from the success of last year’s conference on “Best Practice in Residential Child Care”. This year’s conference will focus again on Residential Care but will also focus on Foster Care and Community Services.

It is particularly satisfying to see such a diverse audience here which reflects the interest and commitment that exists to improving our child care services. This conference also gives us an opportunity to meet with others working in this sometimes very difficult and complex area, to share ideas and experiences and to build up a network of colleagues and friends who will provide mutual support.

Children in Care

The primary focus of our child care services is on identifying children and families who need support and on supporting children in their own families and communities. We all know that, unfortunately, some children may need care outside of their home and family environment for a period of time.

Caring for children who cannot live at home is an onerous responsibility. Many children coming into care will have experienced abuse or trauma in their lives and on coming into care will miss their family and familiar surroundings. The needs of these children and young people will be complex and varied. It is vital that their physical, emotional, psychological and social needs are met in a safe, caring and understanding environment.

Families and family life are very important for all children and the opportunity to experience the qualities of family life is one of the main objectives of the National Children´s Strategy. For those children who cannot be looked after in their own families, and therefore need to be provided with alternative care, foster care provides the best hope of experiencing family life. At present there are almost 3,500 children in foster care.

While care within a family setting is the preferred option to residential care and the majority of children in care are provided for in a family setting, good quality residential care is sometimes the only appropriate placement option for children with special needs or family circumstances.

In addition, Community Projects are often very successful in providing additional supports to families in difficulty within the community enabling the child to stay in their family and community.

This conference was organised with the intention of highlighting best practice and innovation in the Residential Care, Foster Care and Community Services areas for all of you whose work directly impacts on the lives of children in care. Professor Robbie Gilligan spoke this morning on Supporting Troubled Young People and in the afternoon Pat Dolan will speak on developments in Community Services, tomorrow morning Barry Murray will speak on residential care. I am sure that you will find these presentations interesting, informative and thought provoking.

In addition to the keynote speakers, workshops have been organised specifically to look at new and innovative programmes that have had success in working with children in difficulties. These include workshops on Management Issues, Setting Up a Special Care Unit, Understanding Mental Illness, Family Welfare Conferences and Consulting Young People. There are Workshops on specific programmes and approaches also such as Youth Advocacy, EXTERN, An Attachment Perspective on Care and Foster Carers of Children Leaving High Support.

It is vital that the services we provide are child focussed and that the views and rights of the young people in care remain firmly on the agenda. I know that we are recognising the importance of consulting children in relation to the services we provide for them. This is something that the Social Services Inspectorate focus on in their inspections of residential care and it is indeed something that must be a part of all our services. I am pleased to hear that we had a contribution in one of this mornings workshops from two young people.

I am delighted to see both the health boards and the voluntary sector participating in the presentation of the workshops which I hope will be both interesting and beneficial for everyone.

Today and tomorrow will provide a good opportunity for us all to recognise all the positive developments in child care in recent years – in residential care, foster care and in community and family support services.

Too often we hear about what hasn´t worked and what can’t work. The presentations and the workshops in this conference give us a flavour of what is working and of the new and innovative ideas being introduced and piloted on an ongoing basis – all of which no doubt are impacting positively on individual children´s lives.

There are a number of developments at national level in the child care area that I would like to bring to your attention.

These include the National Children´s Strategy, Social Services Inspectorate, Family Support Services, The Children Act, 2001, Special Care and Foster Care all of which have a particular relevance in the context of this Conference.

National Children´s Strategy

The National Children´s Strategy “Our Children – Their Lives” was launched by the Taoiseach in November, 2000. The strategy is a 10 year plan of action which calls on the statutory agencies, the voluntary sector and local communities to work better together to improve the quality of all children´s lives. It includes a range of actions across such areas as eliminating child poverty, ensuring children have access to play and recreation facilities and giving children a voice so that their views are considered in decisions that affect them. The Strategy recognises the central role of families in rearing children.

The Strategy endorses the “whole child perspective”, which reflects a more complete understanding of how children live their lives and the central role that family and local communities play. The Three National Goals for Children set out in the Strategy which focuses on children having a voice, children and their lives being better understood and children receiving quality supports and services, require that we as a society, listen think and act more effectively for children.

Social Services Inspectorate

The Social Services Inspectorate has continued with their inspection programme and to date 54 formal inspections have been held. The SSI comes across some examples of excellence around the country and are impressed by the co-operation and openness they receive from health boards throughout the inspection process.

A key aspect of inspection is to see how the services/centre is meeting the needs of the children, and the SSI always talk with the children and give them feedback after the inspection.

Following on from the launch of the Standards for Residential Centres which were launched at this conference last year, the SSI in cooperation with my Department and the Health Boards have also drafted and issued a set of standards for the new Special Care Units.

An inspection of a special care unit highlighted the area of single separation as one where there is a need for guidelines. As a result the Department established a working group to develop guidelines on the use of single separation. These Guidelines are currently being finalised.

Establishment of the SSI on a Statutory Footing

The National Health Strategy “Quality and Fairness” has set 2003 as the target date for the establishment of the SSI on a statutory basis. It also states that the remit of the SSI will be extended to cover residential care for older people and people with disabilities. The SSI are currently working with the National Disability Authority and the Disability Services Section, in my Department to set up a group to agree on a set of standards for this area.

Work on the drafting of the Statutory Instrument to enable the SSI to be established on a statutory footing has commenced.

Family Support Services

The dominant focus in child care services since the early 1990s has been on the protection and care of children who are at risk. More recently, the policy focus has shifted to a more preventive approach to child welfare, involving support to families and individual children, aimed at avoiding the need for further more serious interventions later on.

The recently published National Health Strategy Quality and Fairness proposes a number of actions to expand family support services. These include the refocusing of child welfare budgets over the next seven years to provide a more even balance between safeguarding activities and supportive programmes and the further development of Springboard Projects and other family support initiatives. As part of this development I launched the National Pilot of the Youth Advocacy Project in the Northern Area Health Board yesterday. This will be provided by Extern and Youth Advocacy Programmes Inc. Mr Jeff Fleischer, Dr Bill Lockhart and Mr Bernard Morrin will be presenting a workshop on their programmes this afternoon.

The existing Springboard projects have been established as a mainstream service to health boards. The Department has expanded the Initiative by four new Springboard projects in 2002 and is committed to establishing a further four new Springboard projects in the following years 2003 and 2004. These will be located on the basis of need within RAPID areas of most disadvantage.

Review of Family Support Services

Last February my predecessor Ms. Mary Hanafin, T.D. announced a “major review of family support services” to be carried out by the Department of Health and Children. Ensuring the right balance between family support, child protection and alternate care is essential as this style marries a preventative approach with minimal need for intervention. The formal review of policy will underline the importance of an evidence-based approach to inform the development of supports and services for families and their children.

The Child Care Policy Unit in my Department will have responsibility for leading this review.

A meeting was held in May 2002 to consult with the health boards on what the review of family support services should achieve and how best it should move forward. The outcome of that consultation will form the basis of the terms of reference of the Review Group to be established later this year.

Children Act, 2001

As you know, we also have new legislation in the child care area. The Children Act, 2001 constitutes a fundamental revision of existing legislation governing the treatment of children in conflict with the law and for non-offending children in need of special care or protection.

The central principle that governs the Act is that children should be brought up in their own communities and families. Where intervention occurs it should aim to support and maintain children within these relationships and networks because it is clear that this is where children do best.

Placement in a secure setting should be exceptional, should be a measure of last resort and should be for as short a time as possible.

This Act represents a major change in how we think about and how we deal with children coming before the courts.

The Children Act, 2001 provides, inter alia, for the amendment of the Child Care Act, 1991. Part 3 imposes statutory duties on health boards in relation to children in need of special care or protection. Part 2 of the Act establishes the Family Welfare Conference on a statutory basis for the first time and provides that a family welfare conference be held in relation to the issue of a child’s placement in special care. (Piloting of these conferences by health boards has been taking place over the past two years). You will hear more about this in that workshop later today. Part 11 provides for the establishment of the Special Residential Services Board to co-ordinate special residential services. (The Board has been operating on an administrative basis since April 2000). I hope to bring in these provisions by the end of the year. I will talk about the Board in more detail later.

The proposals in the Act have far reaching implications for the future roles of the three Departments – Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Education and Science – their Agencies and indeed the Courts in the delivery of support services for children with special care needs or in conflict with the law.

The Government recognises that such a major piece of legislative reform as the Children Act, 2001, overhauling as it does the entire system of juvenile justice in this State, requires not only committed but co-ordinated implementation. Indeed, one of the greatest criticisms in recent years of our response to youth crime and children with challenging behaviour has been the lack of co-ordination between the relevant Government Departments and State agencies. Because of the substantial resources needed, the Act will have to be phased in over a period 5 years i.e. by the end of 2006.

The Cabinet Committee on Children has assigned responsibility to the National Children´s Office for co-ordinating the implementation of the Children Act 2001, across the three sectors involved: Health, Justice and Education.

Special Residential Services Board

As I already mentioned, the Special Residential Services Board, provided for in Part 11 of the Act has been established, on an administrative basis, to ensure the efficient, effective and co-ordinated delivery of services to children on whom detention orders have been imposed or in respect of whom special care orders have been made. In addition it will be open to the Courts to request assistance from the Board to identify suitable places for children who have been convicted. The Board will also provide its views in relation to an application for a special care order following the outcome of a family welfare conference. The single agency approach of the Special Residential Services Board will lead to better co-ordination and utilisation of available places and ultimately, a better service for the young people needing care.

In short the Board will co-ordinate the roles of the five special schools for young offenders 12 – 16 under the aegis of the Department of Education and Science and the Special Care Units operated by the health boards.

The establishment of the Special Residential Services Board is a significant preliminary step forward towards the goal of the phased implementation of the Children Act, 2001. It is just one of a number of measures which have been taken to facilitate the introduction of the Act particularly in relation to the parts of the Act dealing with non-offending children in need of special care or protection.

Children in need of special care or protection

As I already said, the central principle of the Act is that children should be maintained in their own homes and communities. However, in some exceptional cases children may need a period in a special residential care setting or in a juvenile justice placement. I don´t have to tell you about the problems in recent years in sourcing places for such children.

Approximately €40m capital has been invested through the health boards in putting in place high support and special care units to address the needs of a small number of children who need more intensive intervention than mainstream residential care or foster care. High Support is generally characterised by high staff client ratios, with therapeutic support being provided in a suitably adapted or purpose built residential facility. High Support Units operate as open units (i.e. children are not detained). Special Care is characterised by high staff client ratios, with therapeutic support provided in suitably adapted or purpose built facilities. Children in Special Care Units will be detained by order of the court for their own protection.

Special Care Units are subject, like all residential facilities run by Health Boards, to the provisions of the Child Care Act 1991, the Child Care (Standards in Children´s Residential Centres) Regulations, 1996 and are subject to annual inspection by the Social Services Inspectorate against the National Standards For Special Care Units which I mentioned earlier.

If children are placed in children’s Detention Schools or Special Care Units they should be placed for as short a time as possible and as a measure of last resort and should receive a high quality service to the highest international norms. The advent of the Social Services Inspectorate is important in this context (in the health sector) but so too is the Special Residential Services Board.

Extra places in Special Care Units, Children Detention Schools on their own cannot be the solution. We need a continuum of care with vibrant early intervention and family support and alternative care projects, specialized fostering etc. Some of these are there. I am thinking of Springboard Projects, the St Vincent’s Trust Service in Henrietta Street, the Edge Project in Mayo, the EXTERN Janus Programme, the Juvenile Liaison Service operated by the Gardai, the Grove Project, Carline, the projects being presented at workshops during this Conference and others. We need more of these and we need a strategic approach to these. The Government is committed to this.

Working with children with challenging behaviour is a difficult and challenging task. While health boards have experienced some difficulty in recruiting and retaining suitably trained staff progress has been made in this area through recruitment abroad and the expansion of training courses. A new career and pay structure for child care workers was introduced last year. This aims to ensure that more people are attracted into child care and to ensure that child care workers are trained to an appropriate level. The challenge now is to recruit and retain well trained and well managed staff to ensure that when necessary these units can operate at capacity where required and provide a quality child centred service.

Foster Care

I have already mentioned the importance of foster care as a means of experiencing family life for children who cannot be looked after in their families.

As the Report of the Working Group on Foster Care stated: “the successful provision of high quality service for foster children requires a partnership approach on the part of all those involved in the provision of the service. It also requires maintaining and constantly striving to improve the standards in relation to the delivery of services”. In order to ensure the highest quality of care nationally, the Report recommended that National Standards on Practices and Procedures should be drawn up.

A committee led by the Social Services Inspectorate has worked on drawing up the standards focusing in particular on

  • the need to improve the quality and consistency of services for children and young people in foster care;
  • standards and practices related to foster carers;
  • providing guidance to health boards on how they can effectively meet their statutory obligations.

The committee is made up of representatives from the Department of Health and Children, the health boards, the Irish Association of Social Workers, and the Irish Foster Carers Association. A representative of the Daughters of Charity child and family services was also nominated to the committee as well as a representative of the Northern Ireland Social Services Inspectorate.

I am pleased to report that draft standards have now been drawn up by the committee and these draft standards were circulated in July to Health Boards and child and foster care agencies for their comments. It is envisaged that the format of these standards will be finalised over the next few months

Ombudsman for Children

The establishment of an independent office of the Ombudsman for Children was among commitments made in the National Children´s Strategy and in the Programme for Governmnet in June 2002. The office will provide an independent mechanism to vindicate the rights of children as required under the United Nation´s Convention on the Rights of the Child. The establishment of such an office is in recognition of the need for an independent person to act as a powerful advocate for children and promote the welfare and rights of the child. The promotional role envisaged for the Ombudsman for Children is regarded as an essential element of the office and is a common feature of other Ombudsmen for Children internationally.

The principal functions of the Ombudsman for Children will be as follows:

  • to promote the welfare and rights of children
  • to act as a catalyst for change
  • to respond to individual complaints
  • to establish mechanisms through which there will be regular consultation with children, and
  • to provide an advisory role to Government

The Ombudsman for Children Act, 2002 was signed by the President on 2 May, 2002. Work is ongoing in my Department in relation to establishing the Office of the Ombudsman for Children.

Children First – National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children

Children First – National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children were published in September 1999 and represent a major development in strengthening arrangements for the protection of children. The objectives of the Guidelines are to improve the identification, reporting, assessment, treatment and management of child abuse. They also clarify the responsibilities of various professionals and individuals within organisations and provide guidance to enhance communication and co-ordination of information between disciplines and organisations. Children First are over-arching national guidelines that apply to all individuals and agencies who have contact with children.

The implementation of Children First – National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children, had been identified as a key priority in the development of our child care services.

Children First emphasise that the needs of children and families must be at the centre of child care and child protection activity and that a partnership approach must inform the delivery of services. They also highlight the importance of consistency between policies and procedures across health boards and other statutory and voluntary organisations. The Guidelines are being implemented as a priority by the health boards and additional funding is being provided to support implementation.

Duty to Care

Promoting Good Practice amd Linkages with Voluntary Organisations

Children First recognises the need to support community and voluntary groups develop best practice in their dealings with children. One of the ways this is being addressed is by the creation of the Information and Advice Officer post in the health boards. This is a pivotal post for promoting public awareness about child protection concerns and promoting good child protection practice. Voluntary and community groups will have for the first time, a named person in each board whose responsibility is to develop good working relationships and network with all groups dealing with children in their area.

In order to support this development, a new document entitled Our Duty to Care has been published. Essentially it promotes good practice and procedures for organisations dealing with children and consists of a booklet and fact-sheets covering areas such as safe recruitment practice, developing safe management practices and policies and raising awareness of child abuse among volunteers and staff. It also provides advice on how to report concerns to the health boards. This is an extremely useful tool in dealing with voluntary organisations.


In addition to the important developments that have taken place at National level there have been very positive developments at local and regional level which address the needs of children generally and children in care in particular. We can see examples of these new and innovative projects in the workshops which are taking place during the conference. We must continue to work together to build on these developments and ensure a better life for children.

I would like to assure you of my continued commitment to the prioritisation of child and family services.

I would also like to record my appreciation to all those in my own Department, the Social Services Inspectorate, the health boards and other organisations who were involved in organising this worthwhile event which brought us all together here for this Conference. I want to thank all of you for taking time out from your busy schedules to be here. A special word of thanks to the chairpersons, the keynote speakers, the workshop presenters and the display stand presenters whose contribution is ensuring that we all learn and reflect. Finally, I wish you all well both here during the conference and also in your work.